There was a time, not so long ago, when one could argue Paulinho was the most enticing young Brazilian this side of Neymar.
Paulinho had starred as the Selecao won the 2013 Confederations Cup, claiming Bronze Ball honours. A rangy central midfielder with physicality and a silky touch? His £17 million move from Corinthians to Tottenham seemed like a bargain.
But Paulinho, of course, never truly found his footing in the Premier League. The 2014 World Cup on home soil ended in devastation, with Paulinho benched for the 7-1 semi-final setback against Germany. He made just three starts the subsequent Premier League campaign and missed out on Brazil's 2015 Copa America squad.
When Paulinho made the move to Chinese Super League side Guangzhou Evergrande in June 2015, he might as well have been waving a white flag. So long spotlight, hello obscurity.
Fast-forward 21 months and Paulinho is still plying his trade in China — and he's never been better.
That much was evident as the 28-year-old recorded a hat-trick in a 4-1 away win over Uruguay on Thursday. It's a result that all but sewed up a 2018 World Cup berth, putting Brazil 10 points clear of CONMEBOL's playoff spot with five matches remaining.
The first strike was a screamer — a rising, long-range equaliser that required equal parts audacity and technique. The go-ahead goal was more opportunistic, with Paulinho pouncing on the rebound of a denied Roberto Firmino effort. After Neymar made it 3-1, Paulinho completed his hat-trick with a perfectly timed run before chesting home a stoppage-time tally.
It was the handiwork of a box-to-box midfielder oozing confidence. For a rhythm player such as Paulinho, sporadic minutes for Spurs were a death blow. When he signed in China, it was a leap of faith that predated the days of Ezequiel Lavezzi, Graziano Pelle, Oscar and Axel Witsel. But he needed minutes, anywhere he could find them.
While the rest of the football world largely forgot about Paulinho — including then-Brazil coach Dunga — the Sao Paulo native quietly returned to form. Although a group stage exit at the Copa America Centenario last summer spelled doom for Dunga, it was the lifeline Paulinho needed.
New coach Tite promptly returned Paulinho to the fold. When the midfielder scored in a 3-0 victory over Argentina in November, it marked his first international goal since 2013. Despite having the likes of Manchester City's Fernandinho plying for playing time, Paulinho still found himself in the line-up when qualifying resumed Thursday in Montevideo.
With Real Madrid man Casemiro sitting deep and Renato Augusto — another CSL star — alongside Paulinho in central midfield, the Spurs flop raised his international goal total from six to nine in a single night. And he looked sharp over the full 90 minutes, winning challenges and offering clean distribution.
Paulinho didn't do it all himself, mind you. Neymar delivered the type of dominating performance that has simply become routine, and Firmino ably filled the void left up top by the injured Gabriel Jesus.
Yet the night did belong to Paulinho. As international managers weigh the pros and cons of calling in stars who spurned Europe for China, his story will loom large.
It may not be the path anyone expected, but Paulinho is finally cashing in on his potential. He's a forgotten man no more.